Star Gazer

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
CLOUD CUCKOOlAND. By Simon Armitage. Faber Pounds 14.99

Sian Hughes travels through Simon Armitage's latest collection

A mariner who plots his course by the stars is not concerned with revealing the nature of the constellations, but rather with how the appearance of the sky will help him to understand his own position. The Whole of the Sky, the central sequence of Simon Armitage's new collection, opens with "The Mariner's Compass", a poem that makes it clear that the subject matter of the journey will not be the stars he steers by, but the business of life on board his one-man vessel: "Living alone, I'm sailing the world single-handed in a rented house."

The lonely adventures of the everyday are steered by the constellations rather as a travel journal might mark the location at the top of the page. (Captain's Log, star date...?) Simon Armitage sets out to visit his own mythologies, and, like all travellers, finds that the substance of his journey is made up of anecdotes, mood-changes, repetitions, a sense of the free-fall plotlessness of life: "this morning, flying fish lying dead in the porch with the post. "

Holding to an insane creative hopefulness that believes the Earth is round, the poems set out "like Magellan,setting out by way of the west for the east", like the fly that disappears into "the open sea of the big screen" and then reappears in grotesque close-up from the wrong direction.

And maybe the mariner-poet is right to see his attempt to circumnavigate an entirely personal globe as an "old-fashioned thought" - old-fashioned like superstition, like pilgrimage, like Raymond Carver "In Switerland."

"All of us, all of us, all of us trying to save our immortal souls, some ways seemingly more round - about and mysterious than others."

Images of travel, of circular paths and constant revisiting of the past thread their way through the collection. In "Circinus" the washing-machine is arrested mid-spin "To salvage a compass from a shirt pocket" - both dials disrupted, thrown off course. But in the second stanza the sun charts time inexorably in "An arm of shadow over the bedroom ceiling" and the central heating timer switch moves on to the next phase. Is the sun-dial unnerved by the broken compass, or the disrupted washing machine reassured by the clock that continues? Not only do no two clocks tell us the same time, but those in the first stanza are not working to the same rules as the ones in the second.

The instruction at the start of "Homecoming", to "Think, two things on their own and both at once", takes on a moral dimension where even the relentlessly cyclic nature of the universe is not to be relied on. The tyre pushed downhill in the opening set of poems seems set on a course of destruction, a downhill it could not fail to resist, but instead it disappears, self-destructs, defies predictability, and a few laws of physics as well.

Off-setting the theme of travel, circular journeys and repeating patterns,the poems keep returning to images of calculation and reckoning.A lottery winner describes how he has outwitted the laws of chance by representing himself in number-form, "my height in feet, my weight to the nearest stone,the teeth in my head, the women I've known." In "The Level" the reckoning has become more troubled, the horizontal "owning up" of the first stanza dragging a heavy-roller out of a ditch set against the vertical precision of doors and walls in the second.

An essential characteristic of the poems is the way they stack images one on top of the other, at its best in poems like "The Triangle" which superimposes a warning given too late (a give-way sign) a containment, soon to be blown away (a snooker rack) and failure, lack of skill ("the instrument for those of us who couldn't play an instrument") that is possibly a compensation prize the player does not know how to handle.

Those teachers about to tackle Armitage's work as part of the GCSE syllabus will be reassured to find that not only does this new book contain coherent and thought-provoking poems, but it also represents excellent value for the hard-pressed educational pocket - 100 pages of poetry and a play Eclipse, written for the age-group destined to study them.

Eclipse tells the story of a group of adolescents who measure and trade their identities in talismans and pieces of information, and answer the police questions about their activities in a chant built of metaphors. Armed with nothing more than a bag of found objects, an uncertain relationship with the truth, and a belief in the transforming power of words, the young heroes set out to tackle the mysteries of the universe: sound familiar?

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